We’re loving the new series of ABC’s Utopia, especially last week’s take on the smart city movement. It seems every city in Australia is talking the smart city talk, but how many are turning talk into action? We decided to glance around the globe to see how other cities have progressed with their plans. Unfortunately for Rhonda, we didn’t come across any inflatable bike paths on waterways or cardboard skyscrapers but we found a few other clever initiatives that are easing civic pain points.
Boston — smart streets
Lots of cities trial technology to make their roads safer but Boston has honed in on one of its busiest and most dangerous intersections (Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street) to really scrutinise what works and what doesn’t. The city has deployed LED lights, under-road sensors and video cameras to record and report on road usage — how cars and cyclists move through the intersection, how and when they yield to pedestrians, and what situations cause cyclists to stray from bike lanes. The technologies themselves are fairly commonplace. What’s cool is how the city’s using them — to inform road design, user education and road rules. We also love the city’s plain speak in explaining its initiatives to citizens.
Thisted — smart energy
While Australians rail against climbing energy costs, the citizens of this small Danish city have been whittling theirs down, thanks to some forward-thinking farmers and private investment. The city has been replacing its energy mix to be carbon neutral since the early 1980s, when farmers began investing in wind turbines and biogas plants on their land. Today, 80 per cent of Thisted’s electricity is produced by wind power (all but one of the town’s wind turbines are privately owned), while the remaining 20 per cent is produced from biogas plants. Solar power, also mostly privately owned, and geothermal plants meet 85 per cent of the city’s heating needs.
Apart from reduced energy costs, income is generated by selling surplus energy to the general grid, while agricultural by-products are processed into bioethanol, biogas and bio-pellets to create additional renewable energy sources.
Tel Aviv — smart gardens
Home to more than 84 accelerator programs and 1,450 start-ups, Tel Aviv has made it its business to be smart. So smart, in fact, it encourages its start-ups to come up with ideas to make Tel Aviv and other cities smarter. One such idea is the Smart Garden Hub, which uses the Internet of Things to control and adjust irrigation systems according to the weather, reducing water consumption by as much as 50 per cent. The product is used on thousands of public and private properties in Israel and is now being considered for smart city projects around the world.
United Arab Emirates — smart health
An unintended impact of UAE’s oil-driven success, has been its shift from a largely nomadic society to an increasingly sedentary, urbanised one with a taste for processed fast food. So much so that the International Diabetes Federation reported in 2014 that nearly one in five UAE citizens was diabetic. In a place where healthcare demands outstrip capacity, newly diagnosed patients were waiting an average of 56 days to see a physician.
While the health system might have been patchy in the UAE, mobile broadband connectivity and smartphone penetration was not. Enter mHealth, mobile health solutions, to reduce stress on the system and get diabetics the help they needed fast. Health care providers, mobile operators and regulators teamed up to deliver diabetes management tools and messages to improve patients’ understanding of their condition, allow doctors to track patients’ conditions, offer remote medical assistance and educate teenagers on healthy lifestyles. Other Gulf nations are now looking to adopt and expand on UAE’s mHealth initiative to treat and prevent other chronic diseases.
Final note: What’s clear from these Smart City snippets and other examples from around the world, ideas are one thing, action is another. And while cutting-edge technology is the ultimate enabler, smart ideas can’t come to life without courage, creativity, collaboration, common sense and can-do. The smartest cities will be those that harness what technology is capable of with good old people power.